A “Dean Scream” For Real This Time?

As supporters of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign acutely recall, the event that went down into history as “Dean’s Scream” was largely a media confection. A hoarse candidate mic’d up in a room with poor acoustics helps revive (successfully) a disappointed audience after a third-place finish in Iowa by ensuring them he’d still be campaigning well down the road, to ultimate victory! If that meant, as the New York Daily News insisted, Dean had gone “nuts,” then so have countless candidates on bad election nights, particularly on the presidential primary trail where hope springs eternal.

In any event, nine years down the road, Howard Dean is getting fresh attention for a primal utterance that is more about the words than the tone or context:

Howard Dean has had it with President Obama’s budget proposal, saying the plan put forward by the White House might just drive him from the Democratic Party he once led as DNC chair.

On Sunday night, Dean tweeted that the restoration of some defense sequestration cuts contained in Obama’s budget proposal were a step too far when coupled with the president’s entitlement cut proposal that progressives like Dean are already livid about.

“If this is true I may have to become an independant [sic],” Dean wrote, before linking to an April 10 article by Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Josh Green.

Dean doubled down on his threat to leave the part in an interview with BuzzFeed Monday. The White House did not respond directly, but an official did push back Monday on the thrust of Dean’s attacks.

“I just think that’s unacceptable,” Dean said. “If this passed I would have to reevaluate if I belong in the Democratic Party. If this were passed with Democratic votes, I think it would be impossible to be Democrat.”

There are a lot of “ifs” in that last statement, but still, it seems pretty clear that Dean is more or less reading the Democratic President of the United States out of what the Vermont governor (borrowing a phrase from the late Paul Wellstone) used to call “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Now Dean holds no official position in the party these days, and his brother Jim, head of Democracy for America, the former Deaniac organization, has been at the very forefront of the progressive backlash against Obama’s embrace of Chained CPI for Social Security.

Still, those who remember the bogus “scream” event may also remember attacks on Dean before the 2004 Iowa Caucuses (mainly by Dick Gephardt, who ultimately finished below Dean in the Caucuses) for heterodox statements he had made as chairman of the bipartisan National Governors’ Association about Social Security and especially Medicare:

Campaigning in New Hampshire, Dr. Dean did not dispute that he had criticized Medicare and Social Security, but said he had never called for ending them. He said his rivals were simply jealous of his momentum in the polls, an accusation that Mr. Gephardt denied.

“You’ll see that Howard Dean’s beliefs about Medicare extend beyond merely disliking it,” Mr. Gephardt said. “He’s actually advocated cutting it and turning it into a wholly managed care program. And that’s something that I will never agree to.”

There’s no question Gephardt’s attacks took Dean’s comments out of context, and also ignored his soundly progressive health care record in Vermont. But there’s equally no question that right now Dean is taking Obama’s budget proposals (which I’m not fond of either) out of their political context, and ignoring the rest of his agenda and record.

For that matter, the Gepster never suggested he’d leave the Democratic Party if Dean headed it.

It’s a free country, and if Howard Dean wants to set up litmus tests for basic political acceptability and judge the president as having flunked them, it’s his prerogative. But I suspect this is a statement that he will eventually walk back.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.